Exceptional; this is a word which I often use to describe elephants. And they are just that. They are “unusual, not typical” and “unusually good” members of the mammal class. Their exceptionality has placed them in a position beyond extraordinary as they’ve continued to amaze, astonish and impress human observers throughout history.
These gentle giants were initially perceived as ordinary large mammals with odd noses but eventually began wowing those who stopped and gave them time. Quickly, our human intelligence started noticing small fragments of elephant knowledge and ancient wisdom, and suddenly they were considered “smart”. It was long after we had agreed on high intellectual levels in wild primates and cetaceans (aquatic mammals consisting of whales, dolphins and porpoises) that we reconsidered and agreed on a matched level of intelligence in elephants. Not only did this greater understanding of the species aid in its protection from harm and exploitation, but it reaffirmed for us their purpose in the natural world and their importance to the spiritual one.
Understandably, with high levels of intelligence comes a potential for deeper emotions. This is evident across the planet’s primates particularly, and I believe it’s the case too with elephants. As social creatures, their interactions within a herd can be watched and familiarised with those amongst ourselves, as socialites too. While watching elephants move through the wild we can often pick out certain character traits (and even moods) in certain individuals as they progress through specific roles and social positions within the herd. There is arguably a sense of awareness and consciousness present, and it is what I have always enjoyed most about these giants among us.
In 2014 I saw one particular elephant cow for the first time which saddened me deeply for some time. She was an adult with a young calf, and was burdened by what I considered to be a life-threatening injury, which spelt disaster for her dependant calf as well. She was missing the lower third (if not, more) of her trunk, the end of which had evidently healed almost shut. We weren’t sure what had caused this severance of her trunk but it was clearly some time ago as it did not show any open wound or infection. However, she was thin and seemingly producing little milk for her calf who looked even more malnourished than her. This was due to the difficulty of feeding herself without a fully functioning trunk; the never-resting appendage used for nearly all aspects of an elephant’s life!
Without the two extended “finger-like” ends to the tip of the trunk, she would not be able to intricately grasp smaller parts of plants or trees and manipulate them or bring them to her mouth. Furthermore, it seemed impossible to suck up water and place it into her mouth as the trunk end was almost completely closed (we could hear her breathing and wheezing from a distance) and its short length could not reach her mouth.
She survived, though, by making a plan and resorting to squirting, for lack of a better word. There was amazement across the entire Londolozi family once she was first observed drinking from a watering hole, and we documented her feeding and drinking behaviour as often as we could. It proved to be a very slow method of drinking water and looked beyond frustrating, but without any other option she maintained this method to stay alive. She was seen quite often around Londolozi and the central Sabi Sands for several months and soon moved off into the vast open and unfenced spaces we are so lucky surround us. She was only a memory to me then.
In early 2016 she was seen again on Londolozi to the joy of everybody, with her calf alive and looking well, growing quickly and healthily. The two were only seen several times and by a few lucky people before disappearing again, despite my best efforts to find them for my own eyes and peace of mind. I knew they were alive and succeeding and so was happy-hearted with a greater appreciation for the resilience and care of elephants in the wild; a warm lesson learnt.
But then, very recently, something happened which I can never forget. Driving alongside the Sand River one morning we spotted a small herd of elephants approaching the water and so stopped to watch them. Rob Hlatshwayo and I simultaneously noticed the shortened trunk, and as our proverbial light bulbs illuminated we turned to each other (Robbie from across the hood of our vehicle) with widened eyes of excitement, “it’s her again! She is back!” exclaimed my friend. And there she was with a her young sub-adult in step beside her; her healthy calf more than two years later. My happiness was indescribable, and I soon realised untranslatable, as I tried to mumble her full life story in one sentence to my guests… Not possible.
In my exuberance I managed to blurt out some poorly constructed sentence describing her noticeably short trunk and the fact that she drinks differently in order to survive, and immediately she was ankle deep in the river and slightly crouched in order to reach the water surface. Just as she did in 2014 she was still doing now, the slow and frustrating process of drinking water, and as we all watched in amazement I could feel a blanket of sadness and pity fall upon the guests.
There were other elephants in this herd too, and casually a younger bull drank near to her. He was about her height and I predict was in his late teens or early twenties. As we watched and spoke about her resilience and persistence, the young bull finished a few sips of water and walked towards her, where she stood squirting a thin but steady stream into her open mouth. We continued talking. Beside her, shoulder to shoulder, the bull reached down in his usual fashion and sucked up a trunk-full of water (easily four or five litres, over a gallon) before curling the tip of his trunk upwards. But instead of raising his trunk to his own mouth as we expected, he raised and twisted it midway and extended it sideways and then around and into the open mouth of the cow. While her thin stream of water continued to squirt from her distant trunk tip, trickles of water fell from either side of her mouth as he fed her more water in a second than she was managing herself in a minute. She clearly swallowed most of it as he soon removed his now empty trunk from her mouth and walked away several steps and began using his trunk to throw water over his back as she continued drinking with her initial trunk-full, still a steady stream into her mouth. It was only then, once he had walked away from her, did we all realise what we had just seen, and an emotional silence weighed upon us all. “Did I just see that?” someone asked. I was speechless and overwhelmed with astonishment as well as a near disbelief. A simple and subtle display of extreme emotional intelligence just played out in front of us.
This empathetic act of awareness and attention completely blew me away and it took some time to dissect its meaning. We could not confirm whether or not this was a common occurrence within the herd, whether the young bull was the only one assisting the cow, or whether it was done before or after this particular occurrence or not. We have no idea how often it has happened before, or whether the bull’s assistance is limited to drinking water. We followed the herd for a short while before losing them into a dense area, and never saw them again. Many of us kept an eye out for those elephants to hopefully witness this kind of behaviour again, and hope to photograph/film it, but neither of them have been seen since.
I can only hope it is not another whole year before any of the rangers or trackers see her and her calf again, and can only guess as to what they will find. Will they still be within this same herd, and will the young bull still be assisting her around the water holes when they drink? I eagerly await the day someone on Londolozi notices her and we are once again treated to the most beautiful reveal of emotional awareness and custodianship in the wild.
Throughout writing this story from behind my desk, I have been flooded with sensations only ever felt in that moment when I realised what I had just seen. The privilege to witness benevolence so much larger than ourselves come from a wild animal was a truly humbling and soulful experience. Even after retelling the story numerous times I am still met with a tingling feeling and teary eyes, and a desire to unravel and appreciate more. It has etched the elephant even deeper into my understanding as the greatest creature to walk this planet.
Through respecting these magnificent beasts, maybe we ought to learn a thing or two about initial perception, selflessness and compassion. In my understanding, they truly are exceptional animals.